What is the numinous?
Why do I use this word as a byline for my personality and view of the world? The classical definition from Webster’s Dictionary is “having a mysterious, holy, or spiritual quality.” I certainly do not believe in the holy or the divine, but I do feel that there are elements of life, of nature, and of the cosmos that instill within me the deepest sense of wonder and awe, of transcendent majesty.
I was raised by my grandparents (my grandmother in particular) who were keen on ensuring that my brother and I received the best education possible, away from the broken public school system of Long Beach California in circa 1990. My grandmother was a strange amalgam of competing religious ideologies, the daughter of a strict Roman Catholic and a stricter Seventh Day Adventist. Now Adventists believe in a very literal interpretation of the Bible and insist that the day of rest prescribed by God in the Ten Commandments is Saturday. They are also strict vegetarians, believers in a rapidly approaching apocalypse, and deep-seated haters of Catholicism. So, after going to Saturday services, her father would pack her and her sister up and go to Mass to receive the Eucharist and pray to the Virgin Mary for intercession on behalf of their sins to God.
I can’t imagine the difficult position this must have put her in, trying to please one parent and then another whilst trying also to not offend a deity that was getting worshipped in all sorts of different ways. I believe this contributed mightily to her paranoia in later life and in her decision to put me into a Seventh Day Adventist school. Despite the religious nature of the school, I did learn and thrive on its cloistered campus (now long since turned into a vast and empty plot of land bordering the 710 freeway).
I learned that there are questions about the nature of the universe that can be answered purely in our own minds. I was almost eight years old when I first heard about “God.” My mother was a drug addict and shuffled my brother and me around so often that there was literally no place I could call a home. She also never endeavored to teach us anything beyond the minimum needed to survive, and most of my early memories are hidden in a fog. But I do know that she never once mentioned God or the existence of such a being. Being thrust into the middle of an elementary school education where the primacy of God was central was a huge shock to us.
I look back at my experiences and struggle to recall if I ever truly believed in any of the things I was taught; the implausibility of the trinity, or the various and horrifying slaughters perpetrated in the name of God, Just and Loving, listed throughout the Bible, the unlikely events of miraculous healing and raising of the dead. I had never experienced a miracle in my life. If there was a God, why did he allow me to be tortured and molested for so many years as a child? I remember asking the Bible Studies teacher how Noah could collect a sample of every bacterium on Earth, let alone animals and plant life scattered over multiple continents, and still have time to build a wooden boat big enough to put them in.
Despite the religious instruction, I did have some decent science teachers who did a wonderful job explaining the basics of the scientific method, how to use our minds to investigate the natural world. I don’t think they intended to sneak some critical thinking in there, but when you applied the tools of skeptical scrutiny to their religious teachings, those teachings did not appear to stand up under the onslaught. My journey to freethought was inspired by this as well as heaping helpings of the works of Arthur C. Clarke, forays into Isaac Asimov’s popular science books, and Bill Nye (believe it or not).
One of my fondest memories, the one that is probably the most vivid in my mental storehouse, is of the weekend science camp that grandma allowed me to attend in the 7th grade. Up in the mountains of Southern California, far from city noise, smog, and bright lights, my classmates and I wandered through nature trails learning of the life cycle of plants and trees, how the water cycle impacted their growth as well as the impacts on the water table upon which human life depends. We listened to lectures on biology and physics, and were promised a very exciting event in the evening; a blindfolded walk through the woods to a hilltop clearing. The exhibit? The stars.
I can still smell the pine resin lingering in the early fall air. We walked single file, our hands on the backs of the person in front of us, completely cut off from light of any kind. The instructors led us up to a field and asked us to lay flat on our backs. A breeze had kicked up from the west and a slight chill ran down my spine (either from the air or from anticipation I can no longer remember). We were told to remove our blindfolds and to open our eyes. Now, I was a fan of astronomy, I knew that the stars were suns very far away and that we lived in a galaxy filled with billions of them. But the skies over my home in Long Beach were always brightly lit, maybe late at night I could see a small sampling of dim stars, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when I actually opened my eyes.
Blazing in the sky, as it arched over my head, was the full band of the Milky Way. Thousands of points of light shimmering and then steady, then shimmering again. Colors like I had never imagined – blue and yellow stars could be seen, the red rust of Mars was pointed out to us; a world, a whole other planet visible above me! The luster of the bands of stars that made up the blobs of faint light spanning the sky (the backbone of night as Carl Sagan called it) pulled from me emotions that had never surfaced before. Intense love, intense delight, intense curiosity. I was in love with cosmos, with creation on a scale far grander than anything in the holy books of Earth. Laying under the night sky, the bowl of the heavens, was far more potent and spiritual than any wasted hour in church.
I knew then, at least for the God that they taught us in school, that there was no validity to the religious beliefs of my teachers and pastors. That the God they worshipped was far too small to be the creator of the universe was obvious. Perhaps there was a spirit, an essence, a creative force that fomented all of this beauty. Then again, perhaps there was not. Numbers far too large for our understanding, of the trillions of stars in billions of galaxies hosting countless worlds far beyond the grains of sand in Long Beach’s beaches or even all of the beaches on this planet. We were not special, we were not made in any one being’s image. We evolved here in a universe indifferent to our existence. Maybe because the universal laws invoke the need for observers. Maybe because the chemical elements that exist within us and all life on Earth always evolve to consciousness. Maybe not.
I walked off of that hilltop a changed person. It was not sex that made me “into a man” but the realization that mankind is but one small component of the great starry machinery of the universe. I have walked in a dazed dream since that night, only finding and rekindling that sense of oneness when I read the words of Carl Sagan, a man who knew and felt what I had felt. A friend of mine in a poetry club some years later remarked on a poem I had written, telling me that the feeling I was trying to describe was numinous. He told me that some people who contemplate the nature of nature, or about God, or of the ineffableness of death feel the “mysterium tremendum,” the repellent nature of so great a mystery. I am not repelled. I want to ask questions in order to know the answers of questions of such immense importance. To fail to not only feel the power of the cosmos, but to be frightened of its deeper nature is not consistent with my world view.
The numinous is a way of life for me. To be aware of the grandest mysteries and yet also to know that these mysteries are explainable, understandable. To seek to know the mind of “God,” of the unlimited, unbounded creation around us is pleasurable beyond my ability to aptly describe. I have turned to poetry as the only sure foundation upon which to build my framework of understanding. In poetry one can explain emotions by generating them. I can go into the minds of those long since turned to dust and walk through their lives in their shoes. I can transport myself to the past or the future and still retain my corporealness. I can talk in any language and be in any place, on any world. I treasure this tool. It is vital. I want to express to the world how much in love with reality I am. I want to teach that the power of knowledge, the light of reason, that the achingly beautiful nature of our place in this cosmos lifts us up from the dirt and leads us into the greatest heights of myth, it makes us the creators of our destiny.
We are ancient starshine reborn into electrochemical vessels aware of their agency, aware of their power. We are numinous entities in a numinous cosmos.